Executive Order 12996, "Management and several Public Use of the National Wildlife Refuge System," was signed by President Clinton on March 25, 1996. This Executive Order set new direction and ensured new opportunity for wildlife-dependent recreational uses.

Executive Order 12996 accomplished several important firsts for the System.

  • For the first time, it defined a conservation mission for the Refuge System "to preserve a national network of lands and waters for the conservation and management of the fish, wildlife, and plants of the United States for the benefit of present and future generations." This mission sets the Refuge System apart from all other Federal lands.
  • The EO defined six compatible wildlife-dependent recreational activities (hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, environmental education and interpretation) as priority uses of the System, and directed the Secretary to provide expanded opportunities for these activities.
  • The EO defined four guiding principles for management of the System: habitat conservation, public use, partnerships, and public involvement. Of these, the conservation of habitat is the foundation upon which all sustained use is dependent.
  • The EO directed the Secretary of the Interior, in carrying out his trustee and stewardship responsibilities, to undertake several actions in support of management and public use of the System.
  • The EO also directed the Secretary to ensure that the biological integrity and environmental health of the system are maintained and that the system grows in a manner that supports its mission.
  • The EO provided for the identification of existing wildlife-dependent uses that will continue to occur as lands are added to the system.

EO 12996 was a clear statement of commitment to a strong and vibrant refuge system.